Casino events

Casino or not, the city has big decisions to make about Lakeside Center

Lakeside Center, the oldest building in the McCormick Place complex, has also been the quietest in years, seemingly overshadowed by the bigger and flashier convention center additions to the west.

But as the Lakeside Center finds itself being repurposed as a casino — and also needs $400 million in repairs and upgrades to remain in use as a convention center — it’s time to pay more attention to the flat-roofed, steel- and -glass building on 23rd Street and the lake, and for officials to focus on making important decisions about its future.

Lakeside Center still in use

We want to make it clear from the outset that this editorial does not endorse or slap the 51-year-old Lakeside Center as one of five potential sites for a new casino. Our editorial on a casino site is for another day.

But in response to the possibility of a casino being located there, the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority released a report on Lakeside Center last month that contained details that made it clear that city and state officials should begin talk about the building and its future now.

According to the report released by MPEA CEO Larita Clark, 253 events are planned for the Lakeside Center by 2035.

This flies in the face of conventional thinking that Lakeside Center is barely used – and therefore expendable. Just six years ago, then-mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration cited alleged disuse as the reason to tear down the building in an ill-fated attempt to build the George Lucas Museum on the site.

In 2019, State Representative Kam Buckner (D-Chicago) attempted to pass a bill allowing the above-ground portions of the Lakeside Center to be demolished for more open space; demolition would have been paid for with a $1 surcharge on rideshare fares. But the bill went nowhere.

If Lakeside Center were demolished or converted to another use, Clark’s report indicated that the MPEA would need a replacement building that could cost up to $1.7 billion.

Another complicating factor: Lakeside Center has a 30,000-square-foot kitchen that’s used to handle catering duties across the McCormick Place campus.

In addition, an assortment of mechanical, communications, and refrigerated air lines that serve all McCormick Place buildings are located at Lakeside Center and would need to be replaced if the building is removed or redeveloped, according to the MPEA.

Who pays the bill?

But what about the projected $400 million repair bill for the building? The MPEA says the cost includes a new roof, repairs to the parking structure, and mechanical, electrical and plumbing upgrades. Interior work and replacement of exterior windows are also included.

The MPEA said the building was not falling, at least, and repairs could be made over several years.

The elephant in the room is that the MPEA covers its debt and operations with sales taxes collected from restaurants, hotels, car rentals – even taxi rides from airports.

In short, taxes from the city’s hospitality, tourism, and restaurant industries pay freight at Lakeside Center and McCormick Place. Yet these sectors are still weakened, thanks in large part to the pandemic.

Last year, MPEA helped pay its bills by borrowing $15 million from the state. This year could be just as bad, raising the possibility that taxpayers could be responsible for part of Lakeside Center’s repairs — or tearing it down — unless the economy improves.

Chicago therefore has a public building that cannot be demolished or reused without having to be replaced. Without forgetting the architectural importance of the building as a culmination of modernist architecture, the capital of the city.

With the future of Soldier Field rightly taking a lot of oxygen in Chicago’s political and civic discourse, with the Chicago Bears leaning quite heavily to move to Arlington Heights, Lakeside Center — just four blocks away — occupies an equally important place.

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